Challenging the male gaze of history

25 Mar 2022 | Written by By Sandra Falconer

[Pictured above is Sandra’s Great Auntie Nan when she served as a nurse during WWI].

This March, we have been celebrating Women’s History Month at The Joy Club, taking the opportunity to shine a light on overlooked perspectives both past and present. In our creative writing workshops, facilitator Grace encouraged attendees to explore the theme of honouring women from history. We were overwhelmed by the stories that came out of the class, which is why we have decided to publish them over the next few weeks as part of our ‘Unsung Voices’ showcase. Thank you to all our member writers for giving a voice to these women, reigniting the intelligence, love and resilience that burned so brightly in them. 

This piece was written by member, Sandra Falconer, and it reflects on the monumental contributions made by women throughout history. 

History was largely written by men. I could be more specific; I should have said white, middle-aged, middle-class men. Because of that, history has concentrated on male deeds, it has been preoccupied with the areas where men predominate – politics, work, foreign policy. And it has focused, for the most part on, powerful men. The world of work was seen as the domain of men. Women were, for much of the last 300 years, occupied either in the home, looking after men and children, or in low status, low pay jobs and very often both.

[Above is a drawing by Sandra.]

When women did work outside the home, their jobs were seen as being of lesser worth, and their roles expendable. Women’s wages are still on average 70% that of men, and the higher paid jobs are top heavy with men. The glass ceiling still exists. Women achieved the same voting rights as men less than a century ago and parity in family law, much less than that.

So let’s rectify this a little by casting a glance on the unsung women of history. We could consider women like George Eliot who, in the 19th century, had to assume a man’s name to be a published writer, or Mary Seacole, whose contribution to nursing in the Crimean War arguably equalled that of Nightingale. Her part, I suspect, was played down because she was black and working class. Black, working-class AND female. My goodness, could she have been more up against it?! I could go on, there’s Rosa Luxembourg, the left-wing activist (after whom one of my cats is named), murdered by government forces in the fledgling Weimar Republic because of her political activities. She has been largely forgotten.

But these are women who actually made the news. There are millions of other women who soldiered on in adverse circumstances to keep themselves, their communities, and their families safe and well. They rarely received the accolade that was their due. My own grandmother is an example. Abandoned by my grandfather with 4 children, and welfare relief 25 years in the future, she took in sewing. Then, using time squeezed out from all her other responsibilities, trained as a tailoress. She had to face the ignominy of being a single parent as well as discrimination in the workplace. She joined the ranks of women who have played costly roles in our society. There were the suffragists who didn’t belong to the Pankhurst family, and the women who kept the economy going through two world wars; strong, capable women. Add to their number, those who down the years have campaigned for women’s rights, often in the face of extreme danger. I am thinking particularly here of women in parts of the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East campaigning against the atrocities perpetrated by men against them.

And so, sisters, never forget that the footsteps we walk in are the footsteps of legions of brave, resilient women. We enjoy rights because of them, and many of us are here only because of the sacrifices they made for our society, and for the children who became our parents and grandparents.

As I have said to my own daughters, “You come from a long line of strong women. Step up to the mark!”

What do you think? You can share your thoughts on Sandra’s piece in the comments below.

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